Most people have a favorite Christmas carol—that melody which brings back nostalgic memories of childhood and years past, those lyrics which stir our hearts every holiday season. (Please note I said “favorite Christmas carol,” not merely favorite song, so as to hold off mentions of such perpetual earworms as “All I Want for Christmas” and abuse-culture anthems as “Baby it’s Cold Outside.”) There are several classic Christmas carols in contention for my favorite: “O Holy Night” (especially as sung by Jennifer Hudson) and “O Come All Ye Faithful” especially. But, if I have to choose, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is in the top spot. In addition to the fact that I apparently have a soft spot for Christmas carols with the symphonic “O” in their title, I love “O Come” because it is achingly beautiful. The minor key quiets my frenzied brain even as it stirs up deeper longings in my soul—a hunger and thirst for righteousness, to see Jesus face-to-face.
When I listen to and sing this carol, I feel a kinship with our spiritual forebears. “O come, o come Emmanuel,/and ransom captive Israel,/that mourns in lonely exile here/until the Son of God appear” brings to mind images of desert pilgrims, trudging through deadly dark nights and even more deadly searing days. My own cry for Jesus’ return is but an echo of the prayers of the saints over millennia. Though Israel was physically enslaved to Egypt, she was spiritually enslaved to the human condition of sin. Though God’s people were trapped by Roman rules and conventions, how much more were they trapped by their own despotic tendencies to be rulers of their own hearts! While we now live in the freedom of Christ’s ultimate atonement, we are still in exile, and “O Come” reminds us of this.
Advent is a season of coming, which first implies an absence. In lyrics such as “O Come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer/our spirits by thine advent here;/disperse the gloomy clouds of night,/and death’s dark shadows put to flight” we are reminded how closely death clings to us in this life, for believer and non-believer alike. Bodily death comes for us all; spiritual death can only be defeated by the author, creator, and sustainer of life. I think of ancient Israel groaning in the desert, but also of first-century Jews waiting, waiting, waiting—looking back at prophecies which seem to grow more and more brittle with age and clinging to a covenant with a God now silent. Even now there are times, in our waiting for the second coming, where God seems silent once again.
During this holiday season, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our tiny, helpless King, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” can help us better understand his death, as well. This Christmas carol, in all its haunting beauty, can help us bridge the gap between Christmas and Easter, from Advent to Holy Saturday. With blood and tears He came into this world, and bleeding and crying out did He leave it. “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/thine own from Satan’s tyranny;/from depths of hell thy people save,/and give them victory over the grave” does not let us forget the price Christ paid—the hell He endured for his people. As we move further into this Advent season and into the church age, we must not forget how very precious was the sacrifice made. The life of Christ was a prologue to His death, and that hangs over His birth, joyful though it is.
The Christian life has always been one of joy and sorrow, of here and not yet, of weeping which will persist until that promised daybreak when we will see Him again. Often we are tempted to judge Israel harshly for not seeing that this Jesus was the promised savior Christ. We reason that the signs which attended His birth, combined with the prophecies he fulfilled, should have been more than enough for Israel to recognize her king. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge our own blindness. When we face the hypocrisy and evil in the church at large, we see modern-day Pharisees, blind and rotten to the core. When we face the hypocrisy and evil in our own hearts, we realize that, even in our longings to see Christ, we have our personal agendas. Just as the Jews wanted to overthrow Rome, and some today want to upend the culture of our “godless society,” so too I want Jesus to come as I have created Him in my mind. I want shalom-justice as I have imagined it, created in my own image. And, as each Christmas passes, I confess I feel just a little more cynical about the timing and reality of His return. I want Him to come now.
But, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is the Lord of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah does things in His own time, His own way, for His own purposes and glory. He is the one who gave the law; He is the source of all goodness: “O come, O come,/thou Lord of might,/who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,/in ancient times didst give the law/in cloud, and majesty, and awe.” The miracle is that He deigned to come to us at all, that He was willing to join us in (and rescue us from!) our self-imposed exile. True peace—lasting shalom-justice—is so much better than anything we can dream up. True peace comes to us in humility and vulnerability, bearing scars. So we cry out with the saints above, with the worldwide church, and with the angels who attended His birth: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel/shall come to thee, O Israel!” even as we watch and wait for His second advent. We sing a song in a mournful, minor key and we wait, trusting in His promise.